Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile Looks Ripe for Upset

The Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile is always an interesting handicapping puzzle for horseplayers, despite the fact that the middle-distance Breeders’ Cup races rarely are the headliners and often are the most likely races to be overlooked on a packed weekend of championship racing at the Breeders’ Cup. While certainly not the weekend’s feature race, the Dirt Mile may offer one of Breeders’ Cup weekend’s best chances to make money by simply zeroing in on just two serious contenders.

The Dirt Mile has always been something of a consolation prize for horses that are not good enough to point for the Classic and not fast enough to point for the richer Sprint. What we usually are left with in the Dirt Mile is a mishmash of contenders from across the county who must either stretch out from a sprint or cut back from a route in order to fit into this in-between spot in the Breeders’ Cup.

Battle of Midway will face six battle-hardened foes in the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park on Sunday (photo by Jordan Sigmon).

Battle of Midway captured last year’s Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile and paid $30.40 (photo by Jordan Sigmon).

The 2017 Dirt Mile upset winner was Battle of Midway, who paid $30.40 in a 10-horse field. He became the second “price horse” in a row to take the Dirt Mile following 2016 Dirt Mile champion, Tamarkuz, who knocked-off a field that included Gun Runner and heavily favored Dortmund. Prior to 2016, the Dirt Mile had a two-year run of extreme chalk with Goldencents repeating in 2014 to pay $3.40 to win, and Liam’s Map, who was by far best in 2015, paying $3.00.

Looking at the past results of the Dirt Mile — whether it was run on dirt or synthetic, around one turn or two — a few trends jump out at you as a handicapper. These tips can help you narrow down the field in the Dirt Mile. There are now 11 years of Dirt Mile results to comb through for trends.

Here is a summary of what the trends point to in the Dirt Mile:

1) Bet Horses with winning route ability, not sprinters.
2) Hot paces usually cook the speedsters in this race, so look for stalkers/closers.
3) Look for a price and bet against underlays, particularly those trained by Bob Baffert (Baffert flopped again in this race in 2017 with well-beaten favorite Mor Spirit).

Before going any further, it should be mentioned that Goldencents was a repeat winner of this race who bucked the trends, thanks, in part, to strong early speed biases at Santa Anita on the Fridays of the 2013 and 2014 Breeders’ Cups. This teaches us, among other things, that handicappers have to be keenly aware of track biases and other factors affecting the results earlier on Breeders’ Cup weekend (and on the card) before proceeding.

But back to the angles: In the first six years of the Dirt Mile, the race was won by a route horse cutting back in distance rather than a sprinter trying to stretch out. Horses that have performed well in longer races, but exit a sprint prep, are okay too. This was the case with Goldencents, who had sprint prep races before winning the 2013-14 Dirt Miles, but was already established and proven as a high-quality mile and route performer during his career.

Catalina Cruiser will likely be favored to win this year's Dirt Mile (photo by Ernie Belamonte).

Catalina Cruiser will likely be favored to win this year’s Dirt Mile (photo by Ernie Belamonte).

Last year’s winner Battle of Midway came into the Dirt Mile off a second-place finish in the two-turn 1 1/8-mile Oklahoma Derby and a win the race before in the two-turn, one-mile Shared Belief Stakes at Del Mar. Throughout the season he competed in routes — not sprints — in races like the Haskell, the Santa Anita Derby and the Kentucky Derby.

The 2016 Dirt Mile winner, Tamarkuz, was a true-blue miler and came into the race off a troubled second-place finish in one of the prime preps, Belmont’s Kelso Handicap. Liam’s Map completely fit this category in 2015. He was a route horse exiting a Grade 1 win in a two-turn, 1 1/8-mile race.

The pace of the Dirt Mile is always blazingly fast for a two-turn race, and sprinters just can’t cut it going that fast for that long. This is the number one most effective handicapping angle in the short history of the Dirt Mile. Bet horses with proven route ability, even if their last race was a sprint, because contenders need enough “bottom” to be able to withstand a fast pace all the way to the finish. The presence of stretchout sprinters in the Dirt Mile every year guarantees the pace of the Dirt Mile will be blazingly fast.

Given this, closers typically get great setups. In 11 runnings of the Dirt Mile, the race has been won by a stalker or closer eight times. The exceptions were Goldencents, who was the only horse in the history of this race to be dominant on the front-end with the help of speed biases. The other was upset pace-pressing winner Tapizar in 2012.

The ideal running style in this race seems to favor horses that can stalk the pace or rally from farther behind. The stretching-out sprinters in this field will bottom-out and generally can’t close, and the speed horses get cooked on paces that tend to be way too fast. Pace was one of the keys to Battle of Midway’s victory, as he stalked the pace in fifth, 3 ½ lengths back at the first call and 2 ½ lengths back at the half-mile, before challenging at the quarter pole and out-battling leading Sharp Azteca in the stretch.

Therefore, expect stalkers or closers to be the main candidates to win the 2018 Dirt Mile. Expect these horses, along with perhaps one quality front-runner, to capture all major spots in the exotics. Betting speedsters or sprinters does not appear to be the way to cash in the Dirt Mile.

Finally, aside from aforementioned big favorites Liam’s Map and Goldencents, the Dirt Mile has been a longshot player’s haven. The average Dirt Mile winning payoff is $24.00 (11-1 odds). When you remove the shortest price and longest price winners from the equation, the average payoff is still $20, or 9-1 odds.

We can say, ideally, that you are looking for either a clear standout horse that is a single in your exotics like Liam’s Map or Goldencents, or, absent of a clear standout, you are better off seeking contenders in the 10-1 odds range.

Contenders and Pretenders for 2018 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile

The likely big favorite of the 2018 Dirt Mile and horse to beat will be the undefeated Catalina Cruiser, who is 4-for-4 and has won his four starts by a combined 18 lengths. Catalina Cruiser is racking up impressive speed figures for trainer John Sadler, but he has yet to be fully tested in any of his races and has not yet shipped to run away from his home base in California.

One interesting challenger to Catalina Cruiser would be City of Light, who is a proven route horse with his win in this year’s 1 1/8-mile Oaklawn Handicap. He is certainly fast enough to win the Dirt Mile, but he was outshined by Whitmore in the 7-furlong Forego Handicap at Saratoga when unable to stay out of a fast-pace scenario and, in another step, he also would have been passed by Limousine Liberal for second. That doesn’t bode well for his chances of rating off the pace in the Dirt Mile.

Giant Expectations is a Southern California-based multiple graded stakes winner, who finished a promising third in Churchill’s Ack Ack, and Trigger Warning won a stakes going six panels on synthetic at Presque Isle Downs and then stretched out to be third in the Pennsylvania Derby. It is unclear, however, if either of those horses has raced fast enough in their recent races to really be considered legit challengers in this spot.

Bravazo (black silks) edges Snapper Sinclair in the Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds on Saturday (photo by Hodges Photography).

Bravazo (black silks) edges Snapper Sinclair in the Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds (photo by Hodges Photography).

Bravazo is a challenger that will certainly garner a lot of attention at the mutuel windows off of a solid 3-year-old season where he was second in the Preakness. Unlike the other horses entered in the Dirt Mile, however, Bravazo seems to have ended up in this spot by default because it’s an easier spot than the Classic, not because any actual preference of the horse for the one-mile distance. Bravazo’s accomplishments are mainly around two turns and while a route horse cutting back is better than a sprint horse stretching out, it seems highly questionable that this is the right horse in the right spot on Breeders’ Cup Day.

To me, if you are looking for a possible upsetter in this race, the place to look is Firenze Fire, a horse who comes into the Dirt Mile off a 6-furlong sprint win in the Gallant Bob at Parx, but who is a legitimate route horse who is squarely in his wheelhouse at a mile. The fact that the Dirt Mile at Churchill is around just one turn is also a positive sign in the favor or Firenze Fire, who owns one-turn mile stakes wins in races such as the Grade 1 Champagne and Jerome Stakes at Belmont, and the Dwyer (G3) where he trounced the likes of Mendelssohn and other good 3-year-olds. Firenze Fire is coming into the Dirt Mile the right way — and with the right pace profile, as a horse that rates behind the leaders. Plus, he’ll be firmly in the odds sweet spot in this race at a price similar to the $30 that Battle of Midway paid last year.

Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile Conclusion

If you think this is one of those years that the Dirt Mile will be dominated by overwhelming favorites, then you will have one right up your alley with the undefeated Catalina Cruiser. If you think the favorite is vulnerable, you can find a contender with the right pace, odds and distance profile for the race with Firenze Fire, who should pay $20+ if he manages to post the upset.

Noel Michaels
Noel Michaels has been involved in many aspects of thoroughbred racing for more than two decades, as a Breeders’ Cup-winning owner and as a writer, author, handicapper, editor, manager and promoter of the sport for a wide range of companies including Daily Racing Form and Nassau County Off-Track Betting.

He also is regarded as the leading source of news and information for handicapping tournaments and the author of the “Handicapping Contest Handbook: A Horseplayer’s Guide to Handicapping Tournaments”, which made his name virtually synonymous with the increasingly-popular tournament scene.

In addition to contributing to US Racing, he is also an analyst on the Arlington Park broadcast team.

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